To underestimate the importance of The Professor would be a mistake. His own show seemed, at least at the beginning, to do so; he and his perky co-castaway Mary Anne were dismissively lumped together as “The Rest” at the end of “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Island” in the first season, although this rudeness was rectified in later seasons. All the same, the handsome, tousled-haired fellow in the perfectly cleaned and pressed white shirt and khaki pants seemed, at times, little more than a plot convenience, a handy spouter of exposition and builder of gadgets. The Professor – Roy Hinkley by name, you may recall – put down roots in the Boomer psyche, however. Along with Mr. Spock and Mr. Peabody, he’s part of a trinity that made certain young TV rerun junkies of the ’60s and ’70s want to grow up to be insufferable pedantic know-it-alls.
While the Professor certainly qualifies as an iconic pop-culture nerd, Russell Johnson, the actor most remembered for playing him, wasn’t always nerdy. He was cool enough to play one of the shady crooks on the lam that holds a hipster watering hole hostage in Roger Corman’s 1957 Rock All Night. And he was manly enough to play second lead to Peter Breck in the western series Black Saddle, and appear in dozens of other movie and TV westerns. He even had a guest shot on that infamous season of the original Dallas that turned out to be a dream. But many of the other movies and shows on Johnson’s long list of credits are near and dear to the nerdy heart. Johnson, who passed on last week at 89, was a frequent star and supporting player in sci-fi and horror, and had he never played the resident smarty-pants of the Island’s seven castaways, whose expansive erudition and ingenuity was somehow never quite enough to overcome Gilligan’s prodigal gift for fucking things up, there’s a good chance that midcentury pop-culture geeks might still remember him with a smile.
Here are a few of the other highpoints of The Russell Johnson Canon…
12. It Came From Outer Space
The perils, and maybe the rewards, of typecasting were driven home to me when I saw this 1953 classic, immortalized in the opening song of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, at a midnight movie in the early ’80s, in full 3-D. At the first appearance of Johnson, whispers of “The Professor…It’s The Professor…Hey, it’s The Professor” could be heard all over the theater.
Johnson has a pretty nice role here. As one of the desert telephone lineman possessed by aliens and pressed into service repairing their broken-down spaceship, he gets to stare into the sun without discomfort, and also to speak in that wooden, robotic manner that indicated that he was “one of them,” before this convention became a clich?.
It Came From Outer Space was directed, by the way, by the great Jack Arnold, who would go on from such triumphs as this, The Creature of the Black Lagoon, Tarantula and The Incredible Shrinking Man to direct numerous episodes of, you guessed it, Gilligan’s Island.
Arnold also directed his old pal Johnson in…
11. The Space Children
Arnold’s atmospheric, dreamlike Cold War fantasy of 1958 is set in a rocket scientist trailer park on the California coast, in which the children of the secret missile researchers diligently working toward World War Three fall under the influence of a giant glowing space cerebrum in a seaside cave. This extraterrestrial frontal lobe is a pinko peacenik, using the kids – including the unnerving little girl from the beginning of Them! – to sabotage their parents’ effort to help the U.S.A. show the Commie rats what for.
Johnson, here billed, for some reason, as “Russell D. Johnson,” has yet another supporting part as one of the dads, a drunk who comes to an unhappy end. While I wouldn’t call it a “cheesy movie” – in its low-budget way it has an odd, visually formal elegance – it was nonetheless used as MST3K fodder.
10. This Island Earth
Probably second only to Forbidden Planet in lush production values among ’50s sci-fi movies was this interplanetary epic of 1955 from Universal-International. It’s well-remembered for its white-haired alien visitors from Metaluna, and for their lumbering, bulgy-brained stooges the mutants, here pronounced mu-TANTS, but it may not be remembered that Johnson has a supporting role and (spoiler!) a juicy death scene.
When Mystery Science Theater 3000 took its act to the big screen in 1996, This Island Earth was the movie to which the front row smartasses chose to crack wise. As I recall, Johnson isn’t onscreen for more than a few seconds before they start in with the Gilligan’s Island references.
9. Attack of the Crab Monsters
“OK Professor, how are the crabs blowin’ up the island?”
It’s the sort of question that, years later, the Gilligan’s Island gang would ask The Professor, but in this Roger Corman favorite of 1957 it’s Johnson doing the asking, and the disappointing if scientifically respectable answer is: “I’m not sure.”
One of Corman’s earlier efforts, Attack of the Crab Monsters concerns a scientific expedition to an irradiated island, in search of a previous scientific party. What they find instead are mutant crab creatures who, having consumed the previous party, have absorbed their intelligences and plan to use them to take over the world. As soon as they’re able, they start scarfing up the brains of the new gang, too, and before long have assimilated their knowledge and memories as well, though apparently not their consciences or loyalties. It’s quintessential, utterly deranged kitsch, and while Johnson is the second lead (spoiler alert!) he gets to save the hero and heroine, and, presumably, the world in the movie’s final minutes.
8. Superman: “The Runaway Robot”
In his pre-Professor days, Johnson even tangled with the Man of Steel. In this episode of the original Superman series, he is the leader of a trio of jewel thieves, the other two being usual-suspect character players Dan Seymour (of Casablanca) and John Harmon (of Star Trek’s “City on the Edge of Forever” and “A Piece of the Action”). It’s a jolt to hear The Professor speaking “dese dem n’ dose” gangster patois.
The three of them purloin wacky inventor Lucien Littlefield’s remote-controlled crime-fighting robot and try to use him for their nefarious plan to crack a safe. Have no fear, Krypton’s favorite son foils their scheme, dismantling their metal henchman in the process.
7. The Twilight Zone: “Execution”
In this fairly clever 1960 episode of the anthology series, Johnson plays a scientist who uses his time machine to transport a man (Albert Salmi) from the old west to the present, only to realize that his abductee is a killer, and he snatched him right out of the noose in which he was very justly being hanged. He’s punished for his hubris before the first commercial break.
He later appeared in another Twilight Zone episode, “Back There,” also a time travel tale: Set in Washington, D.C., this 1961 episode features the actor as, oddly enough, a professor, who finds himself mysteriously transported back in time to just before the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. This isn’t one of the show’s finest half-hours, perhaps, but it did offer Johnson a lead role, something he didn’t get often enough.
Having done time in Rod Serling’s universe, Johnson later did duty on The Outer Limits, in the 1964 episode “Specimen: Unknown.”
6. The Horror at 37,000 Feet
In this post-Professor credit from 1973, Johnson was part of the flight crew of a transatlantic redeye with a medieval church altar in the hold, possessed of demonic forces. Johnson’s role is on the small side, but significant and heroic.
This hilarious TV-movie has a cast that can’t be beat: along with Johnson, there’s Buddy Ebsen, Chuck Connors, Roy “The Invaders” Thinnes, Tammy Grimes, Jane Merrow, Paul “Wrath of Khan” Winfield, France “Elaan of Troyius” Nuyen, and best of all William Shatner as the bitter lush of a lapsed priest struggling with his faith. The finale, in which Shatner confronts the druidical evil, features some of his ripest histrionics since “Turnabout Intruder.” It’s way overdue for a DVD release.
5. Beyond Westworld
Even a lot of fairly hardcore geeks probably don’t remember that there was an attempt at a TV series derived from Michael Crichton’s 1973 favorite Westworld and its 1976 sequel Futureworld. This 1980 effort from CBS had a premise similar to The Invaders, with a mad scientist replacing real folks with robot replicas.
It lasted five episodes, of which only three were aired in the initial run. But right there in the final episode is Johnson, as a sinister robot scientist. George Takei is in it, too.
4. Gilligan’s Planet
A sci-fi “reboot,” long before that term existed, of Gilligan’s Island set on a distant planet hardly needs more than the description to prove its nerd cred. In this 1982 version, which followed an earlier cartoon and such notorious TV reunion movies as The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island, The Professor decides, one might say, to take the long way home: Instead of just fixing and re-launching the Minnow, he freakin’ builds a spaceship – “It’s crude, but it could fly” – and after an abortive cosmic voyage the castaways wind up re-marooned on another world and have close encounters with bizarre alien creatures.
The original cast returned to reprise their roles, with the exception of Tina Louise, so Dawn Wells did double duty as Ginger and Mary Ann. Johnson’s Professor can be heard, with the rest, reciting the opening ballad.
3. The Professor, by Exclusive Premiere
If you must have The Prof in three dimensions, be prepared to dig into your wallet a bit. This 2007 action figure from Exclusive Premiere – Gilligan and The Skipper were also produced – can cost you as much as $45 bucks on Amazon.
It is, at least, a pretty good likeness.
One of Johnson’s last acting jobs was lending his stentorian tones to this 1996 game, a sequel to Fury3. His role was that of the authority figure who sends the player on his mission into the cosmos, piloting the title ship (presumably named for the large, ill-tempered, fisherman-vexing salamander common to North American streams), to blast the lethal Bions into what dreams may come.
This character is referred to, by the way, as “General Cho” on the game’s imdb cast list, but refers to himself in the intro as “Ambassador Cho.” Perhaps at that point in the future, soldiering and diplomacy have become a single gig.
1. Gilligan’s Wake
Probably the strangest and most obsessively geeky version of Johnson’s character, however, is The Professor as he’s seen in Tom Carson’s 2003 novel, a take on the 20th Century viewed with various levels of jaundice through the eyes of the Seven Stranded Castaways.
The novel is broken into seven chapters, each a monologue by one of the Gilligan characters: The Skipper recounts his experiences in command of a PT Boat in WWII South Pacific, for instance, where he hangs out with McHale, Jack Kennedy and Richard Nixon, while Thurston Howell gets Alger Hiss his job with the Department of Agriculture. Howell’s beloved “Lovey” palled around in her younger days with a post-Gatsby Daisy Buchanan, and so forth.
As for The Professor, he was of course a veteran of Los Alamos. From there, the priapic Prof becomes a Roy Cohn crony and weaves his way, like an amoral Forrest Gump, through just about every American covert shenanigan of the postwar period.
The book (available on Kindle, by the way) is a stunt, of course, and way too cute for its own good. But there are many passages of fine, even moving writing in every chapter, each of which has its own idiomatic style. Most importantly, Mason, in common with millions of Boomer-era kids, understands something that disgusted TV critics of the “vast wasteland” school never looked close enough to get: that for all the undeniable corniness of the acting, and for all the simple idiocy of the writing, there’s still something primal, allegorical, almost Jungian about Gilligan’s Island that sticks in the mind, almost as firmly as the lyrics to its theme song.
Previously by M.V. Moorhead: